The urge to combat aging, especially among the affluent, is an old one, but new technological breakthroughs can make the prospect seem tantalizingly close.
Friend joins Nobel Prize-winning scientists, icons of the entertainment industry such as Goldie Hawn and Moby, and tech billionaires like Google co-founder Sergey Brin, for the launch of the National Academy of Medicine’s Grand Challenge in Health Longevity, which will distribute $25 million as part of its endeavors to, as one doctor puts it, “end aging forever.”
For the super rich in the “life-extension community,” it’s a small world. Brin, whose company has invested over $1 billion in a “longevity lab”called Calico (short for the California Life Company), is dating Nicole Shanahan, the founder of a patent-management business that will work with some of the National Academy’s biotech patents.
“I’m here with my darling, Sergey,” she said, referring to her boyfriend, Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google. “And he called me yesterday and said, ‘I’m reading this book, “Homo Deus,” and it says on page twenty-eight that I’m going to die.’ I said, ‘It says you, personally?’ He said, ‘Yes!’ ” (In the book, the author, Yuval Noah Harari, discusses Google’s anti-aging research, and writes that the company “probably won’t solve death in time to make Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin immortal.”) Brin, sitting a few feet away, gave the crowd a briskly ambiguous nod: Yes, I was singled out for death; no, I’m not actually planning to die.
If all goes well, Brin won’t age, either, or not past a certain point. Slowing or stopping that process is the current focus of biochemist Ned David, co-founder of Unity Biotechnology, who is 49 but, according to Friend, looks 30. The scientist’s youthfulness is part of his appeal, writes Friend.
Last fall, Unity raised a hundred and sixteen million dollars from such investors as Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel, billionaires eager to stretch our lives, or at least their own, to a span that Thiel has pinpointed as “forever.” In a field rife with charlatans, Ned David’s Dorian Gray affect has factored into his fund-raising. “One class of investor, like Fidelity, finds my youthful appearance alarming,” he said. “Another class — the Silicon Valley type, a Peter Thiel — finds anyone who looks over 40 alarming.”
Investing in bio-tech breakthroughs is one way the super rich are trying to stay young and healthy indefinitely. Others in the community are settling for cryogenic freezing, in the hopes that they can be thawed once regenerative science has sufficiently advanced.
CNBC reported in 2016 that “thousands of people around the world have put their trust, lives and fortunes into the promise of cryonics.” At that point, at Alcor’s center in Scottsdale, Ariz., nearly 150 individuals had elected to preserve either their heads ($80,000) or their entire bodies ($200,000) in liquid nitrogen.
Some wealthy individuals are covering their bases: Thiel has invested in both Unity and Alcor.
If there is a way to “solve death,” as Friend puts it, whether through cryonics or gene therapies, a kind of vampirism in which Silicon Valley billionaires “end up being sustained by young blood” or more wholesome methods such as good nutrition and medicine, some combination of the above or perhaps an actual sorcerer’s stone, the next generation of well-funded alchemists is determined to find it.
As a 30-year-old start-up founder confidently tells Friend, “The proposition that we can live forever is obvious. It doesn’t violate the laws of physics, so we will achieve it.”